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Sexual Development

About Emergency Contraception

Talking to your kids about sex can be daunting, no matter how close you are. But discussing issues like abstinence, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and birth control can help lower teens’ risk of an unintended pregnancy or contracting an STD.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) supports sex education that includes information about both abstinence and birth control. Research has shown that this information doesn’t increase kids’ level of sexual activity, but actually promotes and increases the proper use of birth control methods among sexually active teens.

How and when you discuss sex and birth control is up to you. Providing the facts is vital, but it’s also wise to tell your kids where you stand. Remember, by approaching these issues like any other health topics, not as something dirty or embarrassing, you increase the odds that your kids will feel comfortable coming to you with any questions and problems. As awkward as it might feel, answer questions honestly. And if you don’t know the answers, it’s OK to say so, then find out and report back.

If you have questions about how to talk with your son or daughter about sex, consider consulting your doctor. Lots of parents find this tough to tackle, and a doctor may offer some helpful perspective.

What Is Emergency Contraception?

Emergency contraception is a way to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex. Often called the morning-after pill, emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs) are hormone pills that can be taken any time up to 120 hours (5 days) after having unprotected sex. Emergency contraception is most effective when taken within 72 hours (3 days) after intercourse.

The intrauterine device (IUD) can sometimes be used as a form of emergency contraception. However, it is rarely prescribed for teens.

How Does Emergency Contraception Work?

In high doses, the hormones estrogen and progesterone can prevent pregnancy. The hormones, alone or in combination, are delivered in pills. The number of pills taken depends on the type of pill being used.

Emergency contraceptive pills work by delaying ovulation (the release of an egg during the monthly cycle). If fertilization and implantation have already occurred, ECPs will not interrupt the pregnancy.

How Well Does Emergency Contraception Work?

About 1 or 2 in every 100 women who use ECPs will become pregnant despite taking the pills within 72 hours after having unprotected sex. The effectiveness of emergency contraception methods is calculated differently from the effectiveness of other contraceptives because of how they are used. Emergency contraception is the only type of contraception method that is used after unprotected sex.

The “morning-after” name is somewhat misleading: you don’t have to wait until the next morning to take ECPs. Emergency contraception is most effective when taken as soon as possible after unprotected sex.

Emergency contraception will not prevent pregnancy if the unprotected sex occurs after taking the ECPs.

Because emergency contraception does not prevent all pregnancies, it’s important for a young woman to see her doctor if she doesn’t get her next expected period after taking ECPs.

Protection Against STDs

Emergency contraception does not protect against STDs. Couples having sex must always use condoms to protect against STDs even when using another method of birth control.

Abstinence (not having sex) is the only method that always prevents pregnancy and STDs.

Possible Side Effects

The larger dose of hormones contained in ECPs can cause some minor side effects for a few days, including nausea, vomiting, breast tenderness, and headaches. Such side effects are usually minor, and most improve within 1 to 2 days. The menstrual period may be temporarily irregular after taking ECPs.

Who Uses Emergency Contraception?

Emergency contraception is not recommended as a regular birth control method. It is designed specifically for emergencies. If a couple is having sex and the condom breaks or slips off, if a diaphragm or cervical cap slips out of place, or if a girl forgot to take her birth control pills for 2 days in a row, a girl may want to consider using emergency contraception. It is also available to young women who are forced to have unprotected sex.

Emergency contraception is not recommended for females who know they are pregnant.

How Is Emergency Contraception Available?

Emergency contraceptive pills are currently available at drug stores or family planning clinics for anyone 17 or older without a prescription. Younger teens can only get ECPs with a doctor’s prescription. Recently, the FDA approved one brand of ECPs to be sold over-the-counter without a prescription or age requirement.

How Much Does Emergency Contraception Cost?

Depending on the type of pills prescribed, ECPs cost between $10-$70. Many health insurance plans cover the cost of emergency contraception and family planning clinics (such as Planned Parenthood) charge much less.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: July 2013